The border’s open and loads of visitors from the U.S. are heading to Whistler, one of Canada’s hottest destinations. This year-round mountain resort 90 minutes north of Vancouver lives up to its stellar reputation by offering tons of entertaining outdoor and indoor options, including world-class dining. Here’s a cheat sheet of must-sees and essential eats.
Before you go
Crossing the border is much more streamlined if you jump through some hoops on the front end. Download the ArriveCAN app and upload proof of vaccination, a photo of your passport and quarantine plans should you come down with COVID-19 while in the country.
You must also have negative test results from a lab, collected no more than 72 hours before traveling.
That final bit proved challenging when my husband and I planned our getaway north of the border. Appointments were fully booked in Bellingham, the city where we’ve been mostly hanging out during the pandemic, our RV travel mission largely on hold.
We finally found some openings at a drive-through testing center 30 miles south. The process was quick and easy, the cost covered by insurance. When the negative test results were emailed 36 hours later, we printed them out and handed those documents to the guard at the Canadian border.
We’ve crossed into British Columbia many times at the Peace Arch, the point of entry in Blaine, Wash., but this trip was the first time we didn’t have to wait in a long lineup of cars. It was wide open, clear sailing. We’ll be up at Whistler in record time.
We were randomly selected to take a COVID-19 test on the spot, which involved signing up for another app and entering all sorts of info. OK, check, done, now pull the car forward and get swabbed. That was the easy part and we were back on Highway 99 in around 30 minutes. No problem.
That route does take motorists through the heart of Vancouver, so it’s important to try and avoid rush hour.
Once you’re on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the miles fly and the scenery is pretty spectacular with the vast Howe Sound worthy of pulling over to admire. Oh, and yes, you can take a ferry to Vancouver Island at Horseshoe Bay. Been there, done that and loved every minute of that trip.
Need a mid-trek snack? Head to Zephyr Cafe, the funky local’s fave in Squamish. Get the super veggie wrap if you’re really hungry or one of the excellent espresso drinks and a cookie if you just need a sugar rush and a caffeinated jolt.
First time to Whistler-Blackcomb? The curvy traffic pattern can be a bit confusing. But the area’s compact enough you won’t get too turned around.
It’s good to get the lay of the land before booking your accommodations. The Village consists of three pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods: Village North, Centre and Upper Village. Want to be in the middle of all the action? That’s Village Centre. Looking for something more mellow and the Upper Village will hit the spot. The North Village is home to the Olympic Plaza and lots of retail.
Over the years, I’ve stayed at lots of hotels in Whistler and my all-time favorites are the Sundial — especially the suites with the private hot tub decks — and the nearby Nita Lake Lodge. Aspiring to some day snag a coveted spot on the Fairmont’s Gold Level and to check into the Four Seasons and never leave.
This trip, we had the most amazing view from our cozy room at the Pan Pacific Mountainside where I spent quality time watching an endless stream of bikers bombing down the expert terrain. Better them than me and WOW! Those are some seriously good riders, landing jumps, popping wheelies, making it look so tempting. But nah, let’s go get something to eat.
Reservations are key
The Village Centre was hopping when we first ventured out. One of the many reasons I love Whistler is that you see such a cross section of humanity having a blast on holiday. That mix of young and old from all corners of the globe is on full display, standing in line at the many ice cream and sweet shops.
One of the very best places to people watch while dining is at 21 Steps, the popular restaurant that’s on the second floor of a centrally located building. Chef Mat Baille’s menu goes deep in the comfort food zone, with an emphasis on local ingredients. Wild salmon and halibut are caught nearby and prepared with care. British Columbia-brewed beer and ciders are well-represented on the extensive lineup of taps.
Bearfoot Bistro has one of Whistler’s best bar menus, especially if you’re into slurping oysters. Don’t leave without trying the maple pecan churros with a bacon-infused caramel sauce. Straight up decadent.
It’s tempting to order one of everything from the magnificent menu at Spanish-style Bar Oso. Share one of the gorgeous charcuterie assortments before indulging in some spectacular seafood. The scallop crudo is an artful preparation featuring ajo blanco, grapes, toasted almonds and crispy prosciutto. I could sit at this lovely bar all night, watching the crew expertly mixing cocktails and plating the beautiful food.
Araxi is the pinnacle of fine dining in Whistler but there’s nothing stuffy about the stylish dining room. Like its neighboring little sisters in the Toptable Group — Bar Oso and il Caminetto — much of the credit for the warm, welcoming vibe at these hot spots goes to the gracious staff. Executive chef James Walt’s fresh take on farm-to-table usually extends to a stunning long table dinner series during summer months, but that’s been pushed back to 2022.
Before the weather turns chilly, diners should definitely start with the heirloom tomato salad and the sublime albacore tuna tataki, the buttery slices of barely-seared fish brightened by the ponzu pearls adorning the pretty plate. On the large plates side of the menu, the miso-marinated sablefish (aka black cod) has been wildly popular preparation for many years, but the rest of the menu makes seasonal shifts and the beautiful halibut is a summer standout. Its golden crown sits atop a succulent filet of fish, which is complemented by a delicate lemongrass Thai curry sauce and whisper-thin slices of summer squash.
After all the feasting, take a walk on the well-worn trails around the Village. The Valley Trail covers a lot of ground and offers lots of stunning mountain views. The bridges over the glacier-fed Fitzsimmons Creek are especially popular spots for photo sessions.
Exploring the Upper Village
A 10-minute walk from the Village Centre, this neck of the woods feels much more mellow. It’s home to the Blackcomb Gondola, which transports thrill-seekers up to more than 30 miles of well-marked hiking trails. At the tippy top, you can also experience the exhilarating Peak-2-Peak Gondola, which travels between Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb. The glass bottom cabins will either convince you that you’d long to be an eagle soaring above the trees or that adrenaline rushes are for the birds.
Back down at the base, there are several excellent options for a meal enjoyed in beautiful outdoor settings.
The Fairmont’s Mallard Lounge has a gorgeous terrace, where tables are surrounded by lush landscaping. And, yes, those cool domes that look like art installations are available to book for private parties.
A well-rounded menu goes deep on classic sandwiches and shareable comfort food preparations — loaded nachos seem to be incredibly popular — as well ambitious main plates. The grilled steelhead was a perfect celebration of summer flavors with the nicely cooked fish adorned by blistered cherry tomatoes, sweet corn and pickled zucchini ribbons, a tart tomato relish providing the colorful finishing touch. Brilliant!
The Braidwood Tavern is a fairly new addition at the Four Seasons and, no shocker, it’s a stunner. Modeled after a cozy ski lodge, this expansive space has an all-day menu that’s built to address every kind of craving.
I arrived knowing that I absolutely had to try the What the Duck Poutine. The Canadians invented this gravy-on-fries with some cheese curds thrown in mix, though the origins of this national treasure remain a bit murky. Lots of clever cooks lay claim to the dish.
There are endless variations of the original and I’ve tried quite a few, but nothing compares with the Tavern’s downright decadent creation. It’s distinguished by the chunks of duck and a deeply flavorful jus, slivers of pickled poblano pepper adding a bright contrasting note. And egg porn? Yes, there’s a sunny side up fried egg on top of this pile of crispy fries served in a cast iron skillet. Even after walking nearly seven miles, I could barely make a dent in this heaping helping.
Another highlight of this welcoming space is the locals-only selection of beer on tap, representing breweries up and down the Sea-to-Sky highway. The sampler is a good way to go if you want to experience a tasty tour of the impressive range of styles.
Before slipping into a post-poutine food coma, head over to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre to learn about the First Nations people who’ve called this area home forever.
The Audain Art Museum offers an outstanding dinner package on Fridays until Sept. 3 featuring a four-course meal from the stellar Alta Bistro, the meal served from the restaurant’s vintage Airstream parked alongside the museum’s meadow.
Between meals, indulge in some retail therapy or a spa treatment or play a round of golf or rent a standup paddle board and hit one of the lakes in the area. In other words, there’s a whole lot to do at Whistler.
I’ve always loved that this vast resort allows for couples with dueling agendas. I can wander and chill while my husband goes on an ambitious hike or bike ride. And, sure, honey, I’ll bring you something sticky and sweet from purebread. (Pro tip: When visiting that crowd-pleasing bakery, skip the lines in the morning and go in the afternoon instead.)
During peak seasons, it’s absolutely essential to book a table in advance. Otherwise, be prepared to wait while hangry. Don’t be sad if you cannot get a table when you really wanted one. There are a couple of supermarkets in the village that are set up to cater to the grab-and-go crowd. Nothing wrong with an impromptu picnic at one of the public spaces that have communal tables.
While browsing at Fresh St. Market, I was so inspired by the fresh wild sockeye in the seafood department, I ended up cooking in our suite one evening. Dinner and a knockout mountain view and it sure felt good to be back in Canada on that late summer evening.